New Mexico is not only known for its stunning landscapes and picturesque hot air balloon scenes but also for the mingling of Spanish, Native American, and Mexican influences within its dishes. Famous for its green chiles, which are protected and preserved by legislation, the most iconic meals in the state incorporate these bold, vibrant, distinctive fruits as often as possible.
In no particular order, here are 17 of the most famous foods in New Mexico:
New Mexico green chiles are revered throughout the state. A perfect blend of food and spice, the state’s famed green chile peppers are characterized by their pod type. Unlike bell peppers, they are long and skinny, similar to the shape of a jalapeño, however, they’re rather sizable and fleshy—enough so as to be consumed as a vegetable.
A well-known variety of New Mexico chiles is the nationally famous Hatch green chile peppers, which have earned their esteem through their size, earthy flavor, and mild to medium spice. Notably, Hatch refers to the region in which the chiles are grown—the Hatch Valley region along the Rio Grande in Southern New Mexico—and not the species of pepper.
The most revered variety of Hatch green chiles is the Big Jim, a variety that varies on the Scoville spice scale and can grow up to 12 inches long. While the chiles are typically reserved for an incredibly versatile assortment of dishes, Hatch green chiles are perfectly tasty roasted, and eaten as the star of the show (or at least an incredibly solid side dish).
They are commonly roasted in large metal bins fired with propane torches. Whole sacks are blistered before being sold warm at grocery stores and farms all over the state.
New Mexican red chiles are simply green chiles that have been allowed to ripen. The extended ripening process encourages the development of sweeter, earthier, and fruitier flavors than their green counterparts.
Ristras are a common sight in New Mexico, particularly during and immediately following the harvesting months. Ristras are striking arrangements of strung red chiles with the intent to dry them for later use, particularly in red chile sauces. People hang them by doorways, archways, and on fences and patios, serving as a welcoming symbol.
Green Chile Cheeseburgers
Some say the famed New Mexican green chile cheeseburger was invented in the 1940s at The Owl Bar about an hour south of Albuquerque, while others claim its roots date even earlier to the 1920s or 1930s, somewhere along Route 66. Regardless, the green chile cheeseburger is one of New Mexico’s most sought-after dishes.
The state boasts a green chile cheeseburger trail, with 63 locations dishing up their versions of this delicacy along the route. The green chile cheeseburger basics include a burger patty, green chiles, cheese, and a bun.
Beyond that, the whole shebang is up for interpretation. Some restaurants serve theirs with buffalo meat while others take a more traditional approach with Angus. Some opt for melted brie, others for melted cheddar. Even the bun varies, with some restaurants dishing out burgers on toasted Telera bread and others, cheddar and green chile buns.
It should come as no surprise that New Mexico’s most beloved dishes manage to incorporate chiles in some way or another. Chile relleno is a roasted cheese- and/or meat-stuffed green chile pepper, battered and deep-fried into oblivion.
Indulgent and savory, chile relleno is commonly made with poblano peppers, although Hatch chiles often make their way into the dish in the southwestern state. Just in case two giant chiles are not a sufficient amount of chile flavor for you, the dish usually comes smothered in either red or green chile sauce.
Pozole is a stew featuring dried hominy, a variety of flint corn that has been nixtamalized and dried. The process of nixtamalization involves soaking the corn in calcium hydroxide or ash, inciting the release of niacin, and the loosening of the skins on the kernels, making it easier to digest and increasing the bioavailability of its nutrients.
In addition to corn, most versions of posole contain pork and garlic. The stew is often associated with large family events and celebrations, particularly those in the colder months.
Carne adovada consists of slow-cooked pork marinated in red chile sauce. Seasoned with little more than garlic, vinegar, and oregano, it’s unassuming but rich in flavor. Its presentation is highly variable, from simple cubed chunks served with pintos and rice to shredded pieces of pork shoulder stuffed into burritos or sopaipillas.
Blue Corn Everything
Blue corn, a variety of flint corn, is essential to New Mexican cuisine. It brings an earthy, nutty, sweet flavor to each dish it appears in. Blue corn is showcased in traditional dishes, such as tamales and tacos with blue corn tortillas, in addition to more experimental dishes like pancakes, waffles, and cornbread.
A traditional New Mexican porridge known as blue corn atole incorporates finely-ground blue corn meal thinned with milk. It’s typically consumed as a hearty beverage with rich, sweet flavors, including chocolate, vanilla, and cinnamon.
With the intent to maintain traditional home baking, New Mexico became the first state with state cookie, officializing the biscochito in 1989. The cookies’ prominent flavors are star anise and cinnamon, with orange zest and brandy making common appearances in traditional recipes.
They are an adapted combination of Mexican wedding cookies and Spanish cookies called mantecados. Honoring these ancestral treats, biscochitos are typically made with lard, giving them a soft, melting texture. These sweet pastries typically surface during Christmastime and celebratory events, like weddings and graduations.
Sopaipillas (often spelled sopapillas) are an unwaveringly traditional New Mexican food. They are a simple and effective delight, made by deep frying dough to produce puffed-up pastries that can be served savory or sweet. Savory sopaipillas can be served stuffed with meat, beans, and cheese as a main dish.
Alternatively, sweet sopaipillas make an excellent dessert, traditionally served with honey, but sometimes presented more flamboyantly with ice cream or cinnamon and sugar. In traditional restaurants, a basket of fresh sopaipillas is brought to your table either as a side or for dessert with a bottle of honey.
Calabacitas, translated into English as little squash, is a traditional side dish composed of zucchini, corn, and of course, green chiles. Most recipes and restaurants incorporate onions, garlic, and oil into this dish as well. While refreshing and served as a side of fresh sauteed veggies, calabacitas can also be used to stuff tamales and chiles rellenos.
Piñon trees are indigenous to the Southwest, and piñon nut foraging is a state-wide tradition among the mix of cultures found in New Mexico. While some shake the Piñon trees and catch the nuts that fall from them, others follow in the footsteps of their ancestors and forage for those that have already fallen to the ground.
Piñons can be munched on with no preparation as a snack, or they may be roasted and used in a variety of fares, including coffee, baked goods, and savory dishes.
Green Chile Stew
Green chile stew pretty much graces the menu of every authentic New Mexican restaurant. Its essential ingredients include roasted green chiles (of course), potatoes, and pork. Spice varies with the variety of peppers used; because the state’s chiles vary greatly in their spiciness, the heat level is entirely up for interpretation by the consumer.
The longer the broth simmers, the deeper and richer the flavors of the chiles and pork will present themselves.
New Mexico claims the invention of the breakfast burrito as their own, and a quick Google search confirms. Tia Sophia’s in Santa Fe is reportedly the first restaurant to add the buzzword breakfast burrito to its menu in 1975. The original is said to have contained ground beef and a lot of potatoes (by no means a bad thing). Eggs were optional.
If you need any further convincing that New Mexico is the spot for breakfast burritos, the state is home to the 50-stop Breakfast Burrito Byway, which, of course, includes Tia Sophia’s. Other notable restaurants that made the Byway cut include Range Café in Bernalillo, The Pantry in Santa Fe, and Frontier Restaurant in Albuquerque.
Somehow, changing the shape or presentation of your food affects the flavor, no matter how much you tell yourself it does not. I present to you: stacked (not rolled) enchiladas.
Essentially deconstructed enchiladas, stacked enchiladas consist of tortillas dipped in enchilada sauce with meats and cheeses in between layers. Typically, they are baked and served topped with a fried egg.
Native American Fry Bread (Navajo Tacos)
When the Navajo tribe of Arizona was forced to relocate to New Mexico in 1864, the United States government gave them a subsistence diet of flour, sugar, salt, and lard. The tribe turned these simple ingredients into the delicacy now known as fry bread. This dish is a common staple in both New Mexico and Arizona.
“Navajo tacos” are a common dish that utilizes fry bread. After frying, the bread is filled with beans, meat, cheese, and vegetable fillings. Sweet variations are also popular — bread topped with honey, cinnamon, and powdered sugar will satisfy a sweet tooth. Fry bread is sometimes served plain, with a touch of butter.
Pueblo or Horno Bread
Pueblo or horno bread is a Native American bread that is traditionally baked using burning wood in an outdoor clay oven called a horno. Known as Kiis’áanii bread by the Navajo people, the bread is made from wheat flour, butter or lard, milk, and a pinch of salt and is frequently served as a side with stew or posole.
Although considered an essential traditional food now, wheat flour was not brought to the state until the 1500s by Spanish colonizers, and lard, butter, and milk did not make their appearances until the late 1800s when colonizers forced the native peoples from their lands and offered food rations as consolation.
Despite an ongoing feud between New Mexico and Texas for the claim to the invention of the Frito Pie, we can say at the very least that it’s a southwestern delicacy, and New Mexico is proud to play a role in its preservation.
In a Frito Pie—essentially a marriage of chili and nachos—ground beef, chiles, beans, cheese, onions, lettuce, and tomatoes all smother a layer of crunchy Fritos. Often, the whole meal is served right in the bag—why dirty a dish?
With chiles almost always featured as the star of the meal, New Mexican food displays an unquestionable pride in the area’s local ingredients and culture. Diverse influences are apparent, beloved, and delightfully highlighted in each of the state’s most popular dishes.